Sunday, February 09, 2014

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #41--Rango (2011)

[What is Johnny Kitties? See Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp for all the details.]

It's interesting how far we've come, that Johnny Depp playing a talking lizard is now totally normal. It'd be weird if he wasn't playing a talking lizard..... 
Ignatiy Vishnevestsky, Ebert Presents At the Movies/

This lizard is a chameleon in more ways than one.
While on the road in the back of a Volkswagen, an aquatic chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp) passes his time with thespian pursuits, using the props in his fish tank. A sudden swerve on the highway causes his home to crash to the pavement, and the lizard finds himself lost on the side of the road. The armadillo who caused the accident sends him on a journey through the desert to a town called Dirt to find the water he (being an aquatic chameleon) desperately needs.

In an effort to blend in with Dirt's desert citizens, the lizard impresses them all in his most adventurous role yet. As Rango, he invents a gun-slinging past that wins him the position of sheriff in charge of solving the mystery behind the town's dwindling water supply. With sparkling animation and an impressive cast of voices, Rango is Gore Verbinski's salute to Spaghetti Westerns, a hilarious tale about finding your own way through life.

Life in the desert is better than it seems.
When I heard that Johnny and Gore Verbinski were considering doing an animated feature with Johnny as a lizard, I thought they must be getting loopy spending so much time together on the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. Johnny figures that his director got the idea of this role for him because of all the lizard-running-on-water Captain Jack did in the Pirates movies. (Watch Captain Jack run, and you'll see what I mean; a running lizard really was Johnny's inspiration.) "It sounded so strange because the only element that existed at that time was his idea of a lizard who is on an existential, spiritual sojourn. I only knew that it's going to take place in the Wild West...It made so little sense then that I thought, 'I want to see this,'" Johnny says of hearing about the role of Rango for the first time. "Gore has an extremely sick mind. He can really go out there with various ideas, and I have a tendency to travel pretty distant myself with these kinds of absurdist ideas. He's been an incredible collaborator all the way up to now."

For me, a cartoon about reptiles in the desert did not sound appealing. I prepared to be squirming in my seat, watching snakes, tarantulas, and scorpions. I didn't pay much attention as they worked on this project and suddenly it was nearly completed. I noticed their progress when I saw this ad for it on TV:

This animated feature - the first from George Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic - was shot like a live-action film, an idea I fell in love with immediately! To me, somehow, Rango looked exactly like the kind of lizard Johnny would be. These desert creatures were actually cute (in their own worn, grimy way), and so many great actors (Bill Nighy, Alfred Molina, Abigail Breslin, Isla Fisher, and others) were providing the characters' voices. Upon seeing this goofy trailer, my doubts disappeared instantly, and I bouncing off the walls to see this thing! Typical.

Get ready to laugh.
Since Johnny had already done great voice work for Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride years before, I couldn't understand why critics were so shocked by how fantastic he was as Rango. I suppose, compared to bashful Victor, his character in The Corpse Bride, he had more freedom in Rango as a lost, theatre-loving chameleon. "The fact that he's a lizard attempting to adapt to his surroundings and assume these characters to be accepted is very, very fitting," Johnny says of the role.

The beginning of the film grabs you, showcasing the lizard's wild imagination as he makes up stories within the confines of his fish tank. Then, when the aquatic chameleon is faced with the desert (where aquatic chameleons aren't expected to survive), he has a real adventure at his feet. Arriving in Dirt, he stands out as the obvious stranger, with his bright green skin and red flower-pattern shirt. He creates Rango on the spot, assuming the character to instill fear and gain the respect of the town's weary citizens.

This wonderful script, but John Logan, is packed great lines, jokes, broad comedy, and pop-culture references that can be enjoyed by the whole family. "You can be 3 and you can be 93 and virtually get the same charge out of it," Johnny says of Rango. Kids will like the bright colors, amazing detail, and textures in each frame; the slapstick comedy; and Rango's charismatic personality. "This part was designed for Johnny," Gore Verbinski says about the starring role. "There is no movie without Johnny." In Rango, Johnny's great sense of humor comes through in just the way he says certain phrases, and I'm sure that some of the jokes are his own. He must have contributed to the script; he always does. The cameo by Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo may be the first clue. Adults should recognize and appreciate other salutes to such classic films as High Noon, Dirty Harry, Chinatown, and even Star Wars.

"The humor in the movie is very funny and irreverent but underneath that, there is a deeper, darker story and theme," Actress Isla Fisher (the voice of Beans) says. This lizard has issues; while endlessly entertaining, using his own imagination, he doesn't know his own purpose in life. Director Gore Verbinski explains the dilemma of finding one's own identity: "Who are you if you just spend your life pretending to be other things? At the core of that is, really, who doesn't want to be loved? Who doesn't want to blend in? Who doesn't want to feel like they belong?" The chameleon has to stop changing, learn to be himself, and figure out who he wants to be - an important lesson that kids can take with them after they've had a good laugh.

Enjoy the visual feast!
I figured Johnny would not disappoint as Rango. Aside from his work and the clever script, the ingredient that surprises and impresses me most about Rango is the artwork. "There's a kind of beauty to this very dry place," Johnny says of the desert. Rango proves it with dazzling animation that brings these reptiles, birds, and other creatures to life. As ridiculous as this sounds, at times, I actually forgot I was watching a cartoon when I first saw it. Everything looks so textured and realistic. "We decided we were going to really push the level of detail and level of textures and level of heightened realism that came with these characters," Story/Character Designer James Ward Byrkit says. Although all the characters are animals, I couldn't always tell what animals they were meant to be. Rather than cute and fuzzy, these animals were rough and dirty, some with bad manners, inadequate personal hygiene, blood-shot eyes, and past injuries. While the crew knew they had to populate Dirt with desert creatures, they had the freedom to invent looks based on the characters' personalities. "There were no rules, just creatures from the desert and characters from our Western genre," Director Gore Verbinski says. You can tell that these characters have been built for survival in the harsh desert environment, and they've all fallen on hard times as the drought worsens.

How'd they do that?
As you could see from the trailer, unlike traditional animated features, for which actors record their  characters' dialogue alone in a recording booth, Rango required the entire cast to act out every scene, interacting with each other while being recorded. They even used costumes and props to help them realize their characters.

"Normally, what we'd do is we'd film ourselves doing various scenes and use that as reference," Associate Animation Supervisor Kevin Martel explains. "But if we can reference Johnny Depp's behavior and the quirks that he has, I mean, it's just going to help the animation so much more. It's just going to form the character a lot better." In the end, the design of the animated character focused on the whole package - the expressions and features of the real animal they were drawing from, the actor's own expressions and personality, and ideas for the character's overall look and outfit. "It's a completely different thing that hasn't been seen before," Character Designer Eugene Yelchin says about the approach. "You kind of invent as you go along. You invent every single thing."

Having the actors so involved in preproduction seemed to bring new energy and level of detail to the final product. "What we're doing on this project that's different is we've got all the actors together ensemble, interacting with one another, trying to get that magic that happens when the actors are together," Animation Director Hal Hinckel explains. "So we're getting a lot of improv and interesting accidents and things that you don't get in a recording studio with a single actor." Drawing from his film-directing experience, Gore Verbinski had no qualms about having the entire cast acting on the set for Rango. "Animation's not a genre; it's a technique for telling a story. So, why abandon the things that you've kind of relied on in your career? When making a film, you've got everybody on set and everybody gets on their game because there's another actor. They're reacting to each other."

The cast and crew found this atmosphere hugely beneficial. "Gore and Johnny have no reservations about playing, and it sort of frees everyone up or gives us permission to really physicalize and vocalize the lives of these characters," actor Lew Temple (the voice of Furgus and Hitch) explains. Isla Fisher agrees: "Just the interaction you get from the other performers, it's so much more creative and so much more rewarding, really, as a performer."

The unorthodox production and hard work paid off. Among other honors, Rango won the Oscar for best animated feature! (Johnny earned Teen and People's Choice Awards for his efforts; only Johnny could win our hearts as a lizard.)

Gordon can adapt to life in the desert too.
I thought this drawing was going to be so easy - a single split image of Gordon as Johnny in the studio, talking for the character of Rango on one side, and Rango acting it out on the other side. After watching Rango for Johnny Kitties, though, I wanted to draw every frame of the movie to capture the amazing animation, and write every line to capture the quick-witted humor. Well, I can only fit so much on a page (and still my scanner is not big enough), so here's a teaser of a few scenes, drawn as slices of film strips.

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #41. Rango (2011) [December 11, 2013]

In the first row, the armadillo sends the lizard on his journey. The next row shows the stranger trying his best to mimic and fit in with Dirt's locals. The remaining rows recount the scene during which the chameleon introduces Rango, inventing his character's backstory on the spot after receiving a chilly reception from the town's residents in the local bar. (Here, you will find Simon, Norman, Comet, B.J. and the newest member of Melissa's Kitties, Tyrone, among Dirt's citizens.)

It's the start of a grand adventure as the lizard falls deeper and deeper into his own lie. Rent the movie to see what happens next because it'd be hard to guess.

What's next?
Johnny reprises the role of Captain Jack Sparrow, this time on a quest for the fountain of youth, in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

Image credits: All Rango animation and set images © Nickelodeon Movies and Paramount Pictures; illustration © Melissa Connolly

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